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Noriega's Day in Court

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THE demands that ``Noriega Must Go'' have finally been answered. The ``Panamanian strongman'' sits in a Miami jail. But the drama surrounding Manuel Antonio Noriega isn't over. It's just had a change of venue. President Bush's invasion ended agonizing over how to rid Panama of its dictator. Now the problem is how to give Noriega a fair trial.

The general has been described, often by the highest US officials, as ``a thug,'' a ``poisoner of children,'' a ``criminal.'' And his arrogant, often vicious use of power justified criticism.

But given such condemnations of Noriega, can an impartial jury be assembled? Prosecutors note that despite widespread publicity before such trials as that of Oliver North, jurors have been found whose contact with the news is so slight as to ensure a lack of prejudice. One wonders, however, about the experience and judgment of people who choose to be utterly uninformed.

What about any additional evidence uncovered by US forces in Panama? It's hard to argue that soldiers storming through Noriega's residences had the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures firmly in mind. The US government says little of value was turned up in any case. Still, some officials admit the desirability of bolstering charges against Noriega with better documentation. Grand jury witnesses against the general probably included shady drug-trade figures whose credibility will be challenged.

Noriega's attorneys may use the so-called Iran-contra defense, arguing that access to classified material is crucial to their case. If the government balks and a judge agrees with the defense, some charges could be dropped.

From the Panamanian perspective, however, all this pales before an overwhelming fact: Noriega is gone. Rebuilding their country's economy and democratic structure is what matters. US ability to help, while putting authority firmly back in Panamanian hands, will be an acid test of Bush's Panama policy.

Noriega's ability to enjoy impartial justice will be an equally critical test of American democracy itself.

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